Sotomayor and her parents
Sotomayor as a young girl
Sonia Maria Sotomayor was born in the New York City borough of The Bronx. Her father was Juan Sotomayor (born c. 1921), from the area of Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and her mother was Celina Báez (born 1927), an orphan from the neighborhood of Santa Rosa in Lajas, a still mostly rural area on Puerto Rico's southwest coast.
The two left Puerto Rico separately, met, and married during World War II after Celina served in the Women's Army Corps. Juan Sotomayor had a third-grade education, did not speak English, and worked as a tool and die worker; Celina Baez worked as a telephone operator and then a practical nurse. Sonia's younger brother, Juan Sotomayor (born c. 1957), later became a physician and university professor in the Syracuse, New York, area.
Sotomayor was raised a Catholic and grew up in Puerto Rican communities in the South Bronx and East Bronx; she self-identifies as a "Nuyorican". The family lived in a South Bronx tenement before moving in 1957 to the well-maintained, racially and ethnically mixed, working-class Bronxdale Houses housing project in Soundview (which has over time been thought as part of both the East Bronx and South Bronx). Her relative proximity to Yankee Stadium led to her becoming a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees. The extended family got together frequently and regularly visited Puerto Rico during summers.
Sonia grew up with an alcoholic father and a mother who was emotionally distant; she felt closest to her grandmother, who she later said gave her a source of "protection and purpose".
Sonia was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age seven, and began taking daily insulin injections. Her father died of heart problems at age 42, when she was nine years old. After this, she became fluent in English. Sotomayor has said that she was first inspired by the strong-willed Nancy Drew book character, and then after her diabetes diagnosis led doctors to suggest a different career from detective, she was inspired to go into a legal career and become a judge by watching the Perry Mason television series. She reflected in 1998: "I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten. Ten. That's no jest."
Celina Sotomayor put great stress on the value of education; she bought the Encyclopædia Britannica for her children, something unusual in the housing projects. Despite the distance between the two, which became greater after her father's death and which was not fully reconciled until decades later, Sotomayor has credited her mother with being her "life inspiration". For grammar school, Sotomayor attended Blessed Sacrament School in Soundview, where she was valedictorian and had a near-perfect attendance record. Although underage, Sotomayor worked at a local retail store and a hospital. Sotomayor passed the entrance tests for and then attended Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. At Cardinal Spellman, Sotomayor was on the forensics team and was elected to the student government. She graduated as valedictorian in 1972. Meanwhile, the Bronxdale Houses had fallen victim to increasing heroin use, crime, and the emergence of the Black Spades gang. In 1970, the family found refuge by moving to Co-op City in the Northeast Bronx.